I am often drawn to novels that have a setting or narrative that I feel I may be able to relate to. In a sense The Trouble with Goats and Sheep has a little bit of both. It is set in the summer of 1976 and all the events take place in a small community where everyone knows, or thinks they know everyone else. Mrs Creasy has disappeared and 9 year old Grace and her friend Tilly have taken it upon themselves to find her. After a conversation with the vicar they believe that in order to find Mrs Creasy they must also find Jesus. What they hadn’t expected was the other secrets they would encounter along the way.
“On Sunday we went to church and asked God to find Mrs Creasy. My parents didn’t ask because they were having a lie-in, but Mrs Morton and I sat near the front so God could hear us better”
‘How do you stop people from disappearing?’ I said.
‘You help them to find God.’ He shifted his weight and gravel crunched under his shoes……..
‘How do you find God?’ I said ‘Where is he?’
He’s everywhere. Everywhere.’ He waved his arms around to show me. ‘You just have to look.’
And if we find God, everyone will be safe?’ I said
‘Even Mrs Creasy?’
As the girls begin their investigation they realise all is not as it seems. Prejudices exist, stories lay buried and tensions simmer beneath the fragile surface of civility. It soon becomes clear that the inhabitants of the avenue are harbouring secrets.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of the interminable summer heat of 1976. “It was a summer of deliverance. A summer of Space Hoppers and dancing queens and when Dolly Parton begged Jolene not to take her man and we all stared at the surface of Mars and felt small”
A summer when the heat is so relentless and unforgiving that everything is intensified. Tempers fray and unspoken words threaten to pour out of the mouths which have remained firmly closed for years.
“The smell of hot tarmac pinched at my nose and I shifted my legs against the warmth of the bricks. There was nowhere to escape the heat. It was there every day when we awoke, persistent and unbroken, and hanging in the air like an unfinished argument. It leaked people’s days on to pavements and patio’s and, no longer able to contain ourselves within brick and cement, we melted into the outside bringing our lives along with us. Meals, conversations, discussions were all woken and untethered and allowed outdoors”
Grace and Tilly have the most endearing friendship. A friendship full of love and care and acceptance but one which must endure tiny fractures as Grace grapples with trying to ‘fit in’ with the much cooler, older girl before it can be put back together again. Joanna Cannon’s writing is so good and she shows such insight into human relationships that it brought back those uncomfortable feelings I had as a child navigating the sometimes choppy waters of friendship
I had the privilege of hearing Joanna Cannon discuss this her first novel at the Chiswick Literary Festival last year. I was struck at the time by Joanna’s humility, but I was also fascinated by her story. She is a psychiatric doctor by trade, and I remember her saying that although medical school prepared her for being a Doctor it didn’t prepare her for the emotional distress which goes along with that. She wrote to make sense of that, initially a blog, but eventually the story which went on to become The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I’m so glad her outlet was creative writing, because Joanna’s understanding of the human psyche and her compassion is so evident throughout the novel. She captures the child’s voice and inner thoughts beautifully in Grace and Tilly, a combination of both innocence and insightful wisdom.
I absolutely loved this novel. I loved it for its humour, it’s compassion and it’s insight. I loved it because of its originality and its tender writing and I loved it because it was set in 1976, when I too had a space hopper, and lived-in a small community with a best friend I didn’t always understand.